Greg Mello, executive director of The Los Alamos Study Group addresses a town hall meeting Tuesday at the State Capitol Rotunda. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
At a town hall meeting on the proposed expansion of Los Alamos National Laboratory Tuesday in the State Capitol Rotunda, Greg Mello, executive director of The Los Alamos Study Group announced that plutonium pit production is “not the only big, new addition in plutonium planned for LANL”. The Los Alamos Study Group, based in Albuquerque, has been advocating for nuclear disarmament for some 30 years. Some 50 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, however no elected officials were present.
“Los Alamos has a mission in processing surplus plutonium. We thought this mission had been taken away but we learned last week that it had not. Los Alamos is supposed to process 26.2 metric tons of plutonium. The pits would be shipped from Amarillo at the PANTEX plant and processed in the same old plutonium building where the pits are manufactured and they would be shipped to South Carolina and eventually to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP),” Mello said.
He said New Mexico would receive $9 billion over the course of this program and that “apparently this was too good to say no to”.
Mello said apparently the judgment of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was that this would have no significant impact on the pit production mission despite both taking place in an old facility. He said there would be many nuclear materials on the roads accompanied by armored vehicles “filled with guards with heavy weapons that are trained to use them”.
“The rate of transport of plutonium on the highways could be approximately 100 times the rate of waste shipments to WIPP in the first 10 years. The shipment rate at WIPP over the first 10 years of operation was 27 kg per year. This material would be going to Los Alamos and then the oxidized form would leave Los Alamos meaning 1.5 metric tons which is 3 metric tons on the highway plus whatever waste is generated in the process. What I’m saying is, you’re in for a dollar, in for a dime once you’re in the plutonium center of excellence,” Mello said.
LANL officials Thursday referred questions from the Los Alamos Reporter about Mello’s allegation to NNSA in Washington, DC, where a spokesman responded saying, “The dilute and dispose strategy for surplus plutonium disposition consists of downblending plutonium with adulterant materials, that render the substance non-weapons-usable, then packaging and disposing of the downblended material in a geologic repository. This proven process includes surveillance and packaging of surplus pits at the Pantex Plant in Texas, pit disassembly and oxide conversion at LANL, downblending at Savannah River Site, and disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant”.
Details of this project are in an April 2018 document called “Surplus Plutonium Disposition Dilute and Dispose Option Independent Cost Estimate Report” which states that the Dilute and Dispose program provides for the permanent disposal of 34 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium, including 26.2 metric tons of surplus pit plutonium from the Department of Energy Environmental Management (DOE-EM) program. Under the plan, surplus pits are staged and managed for surveillance at PANTEX which packages the pits and the NNSA Office of Secure Transportation (OST) delivers them to LANL.
The report states that LANL unpacks and disassembles the pits and then converts the plutonium into plutonium oxide, packages it and OST transports it to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for dilution and down-blend. It says finally the diluted plutonium oxide is shipped to WIPP by DOE commercial transportation for permanent disposal. Cost of the entire operation is estimated at $18.2 billion dollars in Then Year Dollars.
The report notes that the oxidization process to be used for the pit plutonium at LANL is similar to the existing Advanced Recovery and Integration Extraction System (ARIES) capability that processes both uranium and plutonium. The work is performed at the Plutonium Facility (PF-4).
LANL officials Thursday referred questions from the Los Alamos Reporter about Mello’s allegation to NNSA in Washington, DC, where a spokesman confirmed the description in the report, saying, “The dilute and dispose strategy for surplus plutonium disposition consists of downblending plutonium with adulterant materials, that render the substance non-weapons-usable, then packaging and disposing of the downblended material in a geologic repository. This proven process includes surveillance and packaging of surplus pits at the PANTEX Plant in Texas, pit disassembly and oxide conversion at LANL, downblending at Savannah River Site, and disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant”.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mello addressed a presentation by LANL chief operating officer Kelly Beierschmitt to a contractors forum last month which he said showed the number of people working at LANL as more than 12,000 and LANL funding now in excess of $3 billion. He said at the forum, he learned that the Lab expected to be executing at least $5.5 billion dollars in construction within the next five years and that half of that was going to be subcontracted.
“We learned that there was a serious problem with construction accidents that depending on the measure have been doubling or even tripling over the last year. This is a serious problem for Los Alamos because it means they can’t finish projects, they have to shut them down. As a result Los Alamos finds itself in a vicious circle, so how can we do quality work for the government when we keep having accidents and we have to shut down and then we have to start up again with a slightly different workforce. The way you fix this is you train workforce better but then they’re changing jobs again,” Mello said.
He said $13 billion dollars in construction with overhead included is expected at LANL over the next decade and that the $13 billion dollar projected cost compares with the replacement value for the entire Lab which was estimated at $17 billion dollars.
“So you can see that this is a major construction project. Some is construction, some is deferred maintenance,” Mello said.
He noted that plutonium pits are the explosive cores of nuclear weapons and said manufacturing them is a mission that has been assigned to LANL for the first time on an industrial scale.
“Los Alamos has done pilot production up to now in research and development but never before has the weapons complex depended on Los Alamos as an industrial production site. The idea of the NNSA is to have two production sites with Los Alamos as the smaller and quicker of the two with the larger and later one at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina” Mello said. “Los Alamos has a number of problems as an industrial site including its isolation, dissected topography R&D culture and institutional arrogance.”
He said the ground is not very hard in some places at Los Alamos which can supply seismic problems and creates instability of the edges of the mesas.
“Since the mesas are narrow, the edges play an important role in whether to put a building there. There’s high seismicity – as high as was experienced at the Fukushima site – vertical accelerations exceeding one gravity have been experienced there. There are a lot of aging facilities, there are drug problems in Northern New Mexico and we have one of the worst educational systems among all of the states. And we have local opposition,” Mello said.
He said ultimately LANL proposes to build a new highway to Los Alamos that would start below Caja del Rio and go through National Forest land and then cross over the Rio Grande at White Rock with connector roads to Santa Fe. He said on a recent Washington, DC trip, he found government officials were not familiar with any of the LANL expansion plans.
“Yet you can see that overcoming the isolation of the Los Alamos site is very important in the success of the proposed plutonium pit missions. I should mention that the plutonium pit mission has been repeatedly and consistently described by the NNSA, which owns Los Alamos National Lab, as its number one priority. They would like to expand the research park outside the Los Alamos security perimeters which brings even more workers and more demands for houses,” Mello said.
He noted on slides presented at the August forum that the LANL plans include a shipping and receiving facility on San Ildefonso Pueblo property just north of White Rock as well as future land transfers proposed to provide for more housing.
“The picture that I would like to leave with you as we leave those slides is that there have been multiple plans and these are just some of them that have been brought forward. Sen. Lindsay Graham explained during the spring that NNSA seems to be making up these plans as it goes along. Workers involved in these new missions number collectively in the thousands so the Lab explained in the construction forum that it needed 1,500 new plutonium workers. They needed 600 new craft workers at peak on site building all these things. There are only about 9,000 housing units in Los Alamos County. With the number of employees reasonably foreseen with the expanded mission we are really talking about a growth of Los Alamos County population and housing somewhere in the order of half again its current level. So there would have to be a rather massive land transfer or dozens of midrise apartment buildings constructed, or a new highway, or have lower ambitions as to how the Laboratory should grow,” Mello said.
He said because land is scarce and salaries are high, the costs of housing are also high and it’s not easy to arrange for affordable housing for the blue collared workforce as needed.
“What the road would do among other things is reach the region as a bedroom community and that in some ways the bedroom communities would pay for the expensive services and schooling for LANL workers while the bulk of the benefits are in Los Alamos itself. Fewer costs would be borne by the Los Alamos community and greater costs borne by the bedroom communities at the other end of the road,” Mello said.
He said he compared the $13 billion dollars with other major investments that have been made in the state and found the comparison to be fairly shocking.
“You can’t find any investment in the history of New Mexico that is equal in cost to what they are currently proposing in construction even if you include all three of the interstate highways. This is not for bioscience. This is not for betterment of society in some broad sense or research in general. This is for nuclear weapons. Los Alamos is a nuclear weapons laboratory. The great bulk of its spending is for nuclear weapons. … Some ask if we are New Mexico’s nuclear weapons colony and whether we will always remain that,” he said.